fiber art

Memories from Mount Isolation

Maybe it’s because I missed out on the experience in high school.  Maybe it’s because I come from a competitive family.  Maybe it’s just because I’m a millennial.

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Autumnal color palette

Whatever the reason, I appreciate superlatives.  They help me to remember things, to categorize experiences and file them neatly for retrieval even when Lyme reshuffles and upends up the files.  By this system, the summer that I spent “peak bagging” the high peaks of the White Mountains and sleeping in my old station wagon was the most fun.  And, of those peaks, Mount Isolation was my favorite.

The day I’d planned to hike Isolation, I’d almost chickened out.  In the valley where I’d spent the night, the day dawned gray and overcast; as my schedule was flexible, I considered whether it might be wiser to save the hike for another day.  But, my legs were too eager to get going; I decided that I might as well head out.

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Felting wild-blown evergreens

My ascent began through quiet, rain-soaked birch woods, where golden leaves were strewn all over the ground.  I was alone in the wet woods as I focused on climbing higher, walking quickly to warm myself – and for the shear fun of exertion.  I climbed through thick fog, feeling myself enveloped in mist, and then, just as I cleared treeline, I rose though the fog, too.

I found myself in paradise.

Below me, the day appeared undercast, and neighboring mountains rose through a sea of clouds.  Above me, the sky was that gorgeous Windex blue of northern fall days.  Isolation was adorned in all the brilliant colors of fall, and her Glen Boulder was now in view, perched on the edge of a shrub-covered false summit.

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Canadian gray jay

I don’t know whether I can attempt to describe the elation I felt, the buoyancy of my heart.  Just a few months before, still in bed with an undiagnosed illness and preparing for kidney surgery, I’d doubted whether I’d ever hike again.  And yet, there I was, climbing alone toward the summit of a mountain of a range I’d long considered a home, even while I lived 1000 miles away.  I didn’t want to blink for fear of missing a moment, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

When I reached the large, flat summit, I rested in solitude, enjoying the view of the Presidential Range across the valley.  At least, I did until my solitude was interrupted by a couple of gregarious Canadian gray jays.  Then, with good company, the day was truly perfect.

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“Companion in the Krumholtz”

“Companion in the Krumholtz” and my other felted works are available at wanderstruckstudio.storenvy.com.

Finding My Passion

Each time I go on a long hike I have a long time to think, a rare privilege in a fast-paced world.  A week or so into every walk, I find my thoughts slowing and relaxing, and I begin enjoying the opportunity to think a thought through to its completion, to follow a train of thought to the end of its tracks.

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Felting Rae Lakes

Perhaps as a result of my being in my 20s, this thinking eventually turns to jobs and careers and what I want to “do with my life.”  On the Appalachian Trail, I decided that I wanted to have a job in an environment that wasn’t stuffy or sterile; I wanted to come down from the ivory tower and inhabit the real world.  On the Pacific Crest Trail, I learned that making time for creative pursuits was important to me; I longed to stretch my brain in the way only creativity and imagination can.  Finally, on the Camino, I learned that I wanted a job that wasn’t self-serving, wasn’t just about making money and getting by; I needed to do something that was fulfilling and, in some small way, made the world a more beautiful place.

The idealism there is palpable, right?  But, all of my thoughts came from confronting, in some combination of my own experiences and those of others, how I didn’t want to live.  I wasn’t quite sure how to go about building the life I did want to live.

There is a common idea in our society – especially among my fellow millennials – that we should each find our passion and that, upon finding it, we must then dedicate our lives to it.  And, for those lucky few who seem to have always known which path they’d take – who, for example, loved science class in middle school, continued to study biology in college, and now work as veterinarians – this model makes perfect sense. But, for those of us who tend more toward the dilettante or polymath end of the spectrum, who enjoy experimenting with lots of things rather than focusing on any one, this notion of a singular Passion can be distressing. We expect something to come along that we love most of all, and I know I hoped it would ride in waving a flag to alert me to its presence; we despair when it alludes us.

On the Pacific Crest Trail, Pine Nut introduced me to Rainer Maria Rilke by reading aloud parts of Letters to a Young Poet.  While Rilke’s letter full of sexual advice was bizarre, there were others that were insightful.  In addition to the oft-quoted advice to “love the questions themselves,” there was another line that I’ve taken to heart: Rilke’s insistence that, to be writers, people must want to write, must need to write so much that it keeps them up at night.

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Felting a white blaze

In discovering my love of fiber art (entirely by accident and partially thanks to Lyme Disease), I think I’ve experienced that feeling.  I find myself felting until I go to sleep and then again first thing in the morning, squeezing in moments of felting whenever I can manage it.  I notice my mind wandering to my latest project while I’m tree planting, and my weekends are consumed with creating fiber art.

Just when I gave up thinking I had a Passion, I seem to have found it – or maybe it’s just a burning interest, one that will extinguish itself in time.  I suppose it really doesn’t matter.  For the time being, felting is something I love just about as much as I love backpacking, and that’s saying something.

Beginning the Camino Aragones

First, if you’ll humor me a bit, I’d love to share my latest felt “painting”:

A felted wool painting of the valley of the Rio Aragones

West of the Pyrenees

In celebration of the wonderful time I had on the Camino Aragones, I needlefelted one of my favorite photographs from that section of my walk across Spain.  I’d taken the photo midway through the Aragones, as I enjoyed a last view of the snowcapped Pyrenees rising above arid grain fields.  Felting from photographs is my favorite kind of felt painting; I try to capture the details and mood of a photo by using a special needle to poke strands of dyed wool into place on a “canvas” of wool I’ve made from our pet sheep’s last haircut.  It always takes a while to get a wool painting just right, but the result has lots of color and texture.  I’m quite pleased with this “painting.”  (If it strikes your fancy, here’s a shameless plug:  Please feel free to check it out on the Etsy shop of our family’s fiber studio: https://www.etsy.com/shop/heartfeltfleecefiber.)

Anyway, the Camino Aragones was the second route I came to in my dabbler of Caminos.  Almost from the moment the Camino began descending the Pyrenees at the France-Spain border, it took on a different flavor.  The misty, muddy path gave way, on the other side of the rain-shadowed mountains, to a drier, hotter trail.  The wildflowers were different, and the forests of the French side disappeared.  The first few towns on the Aragones seemed more bustling than the sleepy French mountain villages I’d gotten used to.

But, as the PCT taught me, arid lands have a distinct beauty of their own, and I soon found myself appreciating the brushlands of eastern Spain.  Unlike on the PCT, water carries weren’t an issue, as it was easy to ask a kind baker or bartender for water in the towns along the way.

A sundog above the trees

A sundog above the trees

By the time I arrived in Jaca, the Spanish sun had already begun working a number on my skin, and I’d been lucky to be a witness to a spectacular sundog, a rainbow-like phenomenon seen on sunny days.  I hadn’t yet glimpsed the “lunar landscapes,” the badlands for which that region of Spain is known, and I was excited to think that they were just around the corner.  But first, it was time for a zero day — and a field trip to the cliffside monastery, San Juan de la Peña.

Panorama from a vista near San Juan de la Pena

Panorama from a vista near San Juan de la Pena

On Mountains and Medicine

As things are wont to do when you’re in your 20s and a year has passed since you’ve written, so much has changed since my last post.

After being forced off the PCT because of Lyme, I returned home to help my mother with her new business, eventually recovered, visited Pine Nut in Seattle, relapsed and reached my all-time Lyme low at the start of 2016, discovered a deep passion for fiber art, decided to go into the medical field, walked a winding yellow arrow of Caminos, explored Western Europe, enrolled and (very) successfully completed four weeks of pre-med courses, and then suffered from Lyme or carbon monoxide poisoning (long story) and had to withdraw.  Now I’m back at my “old Kentucky home,” creating fiber art, feeling strong, and pondering my next move.

Healthy people on career tracks might be so caught up in the day-to-day challenges that they are not afforded the chance to pause and take stock of where they’re going.  Getting to do so once every few years is a treat.  Getting to do so once every few months because of the cycles of remission and relapse (or carbon monoxide poisoning, you know) is a little excessive.

It’s not that I’d rather avoid being deliberate and mindful; it’s just that I’d prefer not to question my deliberate, mindful choices at such frequent junctures.  I feel completely smitten by mountains and art and the biological sciences; how am I supposed to choose just one?  (Perhaps I should take a page from polyamory and refuse to choose.)

I feel relatively certain that I would enjoy the lifestyle of a locum tenens hospitalist, traveling to various assignments and using modern medicine in the acute care setting where it most excels.  I would enjoy keeping abreast of the latest research and working through differential diagnoses to problem solve.  Most importantly, I would enjoy doing my best to ensure patients even more ill than I’ve been get the chance to hike another mountain.

But, the journey to that point feels daunting.  I’d forgotten about the competitiveness – the Slytherin atmosphere – of school; I’d forgotten what it felt like to live in a world where statuses and resumes are important.  It’s not a place where I feel as though I belong.

Thus, in my mind, the question right now, at this unusual limbo before registration for next semester opens, is whether I will find a place for myself – without losing myself – in med school. Should I be focusing on getting these last prereqs under my belt, when I’m not sure whether what comes next is a good choice for me?  I don’t want to go into medicine in spite of needing to go to med school; I want to be able to enjoy the journey.  I’m not opposed to hard work; I have just learned that life is too unpredictable to spend healthy days in unhealthy settings.

So, that’s where I am in my thoughts, at least today.  I welcome feedback, especially from med students who are finding their way toward their dreams.